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"Hey, Curtis, what's going on?"

My head snapped up, and I found the one and only Curly Shepard staring at me. "Hey, Curly!" I grinned. "Guess you finally got let out of the reformatory, huh?"

"Yeah," Curly said, rolling his eyes. "Let me tell you man, it wasn't too enjoyable."

Well, whose fault is that? I thought to myself, but trying to look tough, I said, "So what're ya planning on doin' now that you're home?"

"Think I'm gonna go to a party at Buck's tonight with some buddies. Wanna join us?" Curly mocked knowingly.

I glared at him. "Sorry, but I'm busy tonight."

"Doing homework, right?" Curly smirked.

I was going to lunge at him, but imagining Tim and Darry's faces if they heard we got into an actual fight, I thought better of it. "I changed my mind; I'm actually free tonight. I'll be there. I promise."

"If you insi-ist!" Curly singsonged and walked off. I gritted my teeth. Sometimes I wondered why Curly was even sort of my friend. He could be a real jerk sometimes. Not like Johnny…

I walked home, shoulders hunched, hoping no one else saw that little discussion. Darry's still not a big fan of me going places alone, but at least things have been better, social warfare wise. Hopefully I would think of a way to get to Buck's without getting caught.

When I opened the door, I found Two-Bit and Steve caught in a wrestling match, but that didn't surprise me all that much. I was sure someone had just cheated in arm-wrestling or poker or something of the like. It got kind of boring after a while.

When it finally subsided, I went up to Two-Bit and asked if he would take me to the Nightly Double. "Sorry kid, I was gonna wander around this evenin'. Maybe Stevie here'll take you though." I looked at Steve expectantly.

Steve groaned miserably, but Soda shot him a glare, so he said yes. I rolled my eyes at his unpleasant response, but was satisfied. Knowing Steve, he probably wouldn't even pay attention to me, and going to Buck's would be all the more easier.

Even though it was Friday, I still got some homework done. After all, in case I got into trouble with Darry when I got home (which I guess deep down I knew was a given), I'd have that to potentially soften him up with.

Finally, Steve knocked on my door. "All right, kid, it's time to go. Are you ready?"

"Yeah, yeah, I'm ready," I said absent-mindedly. I was getting a little nervous about this.

"So, you're ready and without a jacket? It's, like, fifty degrees out, y'know."

I glared at Steve and grabbed a jacket of mine from the floor. "Now I'm ready," I said.

Steve rolled his eyes, but nevertheless, we went outside and got into his car. The ride there was silent, but my head was spinning. In actuality, the sneaking off part was simple. All I had to do was tell Steve I was going to get popcorn or something. I didn't actually think he'd notice (or really care) if I was gone for an extended period of time, especially considering the fact that he'd probably find a blonde to hit on soon enough.

I was right about him finding a girl, all, right, but I stayed quiet for the first part so he wouldn't get suspicious. Finally, at a quarter to seven, I made my escape. At first I thought I should at least tell Steve a lie, like saying I was going to get a Coke or something, but he was plenty distracted, so I figured he wouldn't care too much.

Nervously, I got up and casually walked away. When I was sure Steve couldn't see me, I raced out and ran three blocks to Buck's house. When I got there, I awkwardly tried to conceal myself; there are multiple people that go to Buck's parties that could and would rat me out. Suddenly, I felt a hand on my shoulder. I jumped, and turned around, finding, to both my relief and annoyance, Curly.

Once again, he gave me his evil smirk. "I scared you, didn't I, Curtis?" A couple other members of his gang were behind him, snickering.

"Sure did, Shepard." I glared at him, but good-naturedly. "Now how are we gonna get in?" I asked worriedly. "Buck's gonna get me in trouble if he catches me here."

One of his friends rolled his eyes. "It's called sneaking through the window, stupid." And with that, Curly and his friends pulled me around a corner. Curly handed me a stick.

"This window is sealed, Curtis. Here, you have to take this stick to scratch open the seal," he instructed.

I was somewhat bewildered. I had never heard of such a window, but I still tried, just to please them. I tried for about two minutes before it occurred to me that the group of them was laughing at me.

"Boy, are you gullible, Curtis," another one of Curly's friends said, pushing the window in. "It's not even locked."

I scowled, but followed the rest inside. I should have expected this; Two-Bit, Dally, Steve, and Soda made me go through that whole 'initiation' thing when I was younger, but at least with them all my embarrassing failures didn't leave the group. I wasn't so sure that that was the case with these guys.

Anyway, I got inside and relaxed. So far, I hadn't done well at redeeming myself, but I figured the longer I stuck around, the more opportunities I had. Besides, it was nice being around kids my own age for once. The only one who hadn't directly teased me yet, Robert, walked off into some other random room, and I followed him, attempting to look cool. I wasn't sure where I was, but I did see a familiar face: it was my school friend, Michael.

"Ponyboy!" Michael greeted me cheerfully. "I didn't know you hung around here! How have you been? Besides…well, all that junk you went through…" he added awkwardly.

I gritted my teeth, but said, "Yeah, I've been okay. Only actually been here once though," I said coolly, looking around. "What about you?"

"Oh, I go here all the time," said Michael. "It's really pretty boring if you're sober though. Here, let me get you a beer! I'll be right back."

He left, and I tensed. There was no way I'd be able to avoid serious trouble if anybody caught me with beer, but I saw the look on Robert's face—the same threatening, mocking look I had already gotten enough times that day. I put my cool persona back on, and Robert smirked, satisfied.

Michael came back. He handed beer cans to both Robert and me. Shakily, I opened the can, not only remembering how bad the taste and the grounding was last time I drank, but remembering whatever happened when Johnny and Steve's fathers drank. It scared me, and for a split second I wondered what Johnny would think.

Robert slapped me. "For Christ's sake, Ponyboy, just drink the beer!" he snapped.

I shook, but finally got the guts to drink it. It still tasted terrible, but I tried to ignore that fact and walked along with Robert and Michael. A few minutes later, after I had finally managed to take my third sip, I felt someone grab my shoulder. I jumped again.

"Ponyboy, what in the world are you thinking?" a familiar voice snapped. I turned around and felt instantly relieved. "Oh, Two-Bit, it's just you!"

"Just me?" Two-Bit asked incredulously. "Exactly what do you mean by that? You think I'm gonna just let you off easy? Is that what you think?"

"Well…I guess so," I muttered, embarrassed. Robert and Michael were still staring at me. "We're buddies, right? Why would you wanna get me busted?"

Two-Bit glared at me, and I knew he was serious. "You drove us all crazy, kid. Steve called us right away when he figured out you were missing."

Robert smirked. "Ooh, looks like the Curtis kid is gonna get busted!"

I cringed, waiting for Two-Bit to show some sort of amusement. He didn't though, and for once I was happy about that.

"Okay, fine, take me home. I don't actually want to stay here any more," I growled. Two-Bit was glad to oblige.

Once again, the car ride was silent and awkward.

When we got home, Two-Bit clutched my arm and literally hauled me inside, where I was met by Steve and my brothers. I looked up at Two-Bit. "You've gotten stronger, huh?" I said, smiling nervously.

"Sit down, kid," Steve commanded. "This ain't no time for funny business."

I sat down on the couch and waited. Soda began.

"Ponyboy, what exactly were you thinking going to Buck's? Even I told you that you weren't allowed to go there, and I don't give you any rules; you know that. Why break this one?"

"Steve near drove us mad with worry when he came home saying he couldn't find you," Darry went on. "Soda and I were clueless. Luckily, Two-Bit turned up here and we told him. Two-Bit, just how did you know he would be at Buck's?" Darry asked curiously.

"I didn't," he said simply. "I was just walking around there seeing if I could find anyone who might possibly know where he is. It was only lucky that I found him."

Now it was Steve's turn. "Damn it kid, you really gave me a scare. I thought your brothers would skin me alive if I told them I'd lost you."

"Like that's all my fault!" I exclaimed. "The main reason it was so easy to sneak off was that you didn't even pay attention to me. You just talked to girls the whole time anyway."

"You did what, Steve?" Darry screamed. Soda gave his brother a look, and he cooled off a little, but he still glared at Steve.

"And why were you hanging out with those kids, anyway?" Two-Bit asked. "They're just hoods. You don't need them."

"Sure I do," I said quietly. "They're fourteen-year-olds." And because I found myself almost crying, I ran into my room.

As I should have expected, Soda knocked on my door a minute later. "Pony, what's the matter? Why are you acting like this?" he cooed.

I glared at him. "You don't get it, Soda. The gang is cool, but I'm sick of being the kid. If you guys aren't being overprotective, you're leaving me out of things, or teasing me because I'm weak. I'm not one of you."

"And you're one of them?" Soda asked. "You don't seem to be."

"But I could have been if Two-Bit hadn't ruined it," I cried. "Johnny was the only one who didn't treat me like a kid, and now he's dead.

"I need someone to hang out with at school," I went on. "Two-Bit and Steve are cool, but they're not in my grade, so I'm alone in my classes. And I mean, we don't have a greaser/Soc conflict anymore, but kids still pick on me. I need a friend my age," I said simply.

Soda sighed and looked thoughtful. "You'll find someone, Pony. I promise you." He kissed my head. "No one's gonna replace Johnny, not ever. But you're still gonna make it, all right?"

"Tuff enough," I said, smiling up at him.

"Great," he said. "Now get to bed, ya hear?"

"Yeah, I hear, Soda," I said.

He closed the door.

AN: So…how was that? I'm slightly concerned about pacing and characterization, but for the most part I felt okay about it…what do you guys think?

Edit: Just to clarify, this is a bit of a What If fic. I realize that Ponyboy is somewhat out of character, but it was more of an experiment about how everyone else would react to that situation. Also, since we never actually met Curly in the book, the personality I came up with for him was what I extracted from what Pony said in the book. Finally, I know that in the book Pony says that Soda never treated him like a kid, but in my opinion everyone's relationships after the novel's events changed somewhat, and I imagined everyone else being more protective of Pony...just because he's the last kid. Just my opinion.